To Make the Most Out of School, Focus Less on Grades and More on Making New Stuff

Recently, I was invited to speak in front of a national assembly of teachers on a daunting topic. The question given was:

“Schools want to prepare future-ready learners who can build the future they want, and yet there is a disconnect in terms of what it means and how to really empower students to do so. What do schools need to do to help young people to move forward?”

Looking back at my time as a student from first grade to the last year of university, and assessing that time vis-a-vis the challenges of working a hyper-digitalized, globalized economy, I had one unilateral answer for them: let students focus less on grades and more on making new stuff.

Elementary: The Tipping Point

I graduated as valedictorian from a private elementary school. But my proudest moment was in 3rd grade when I won a small public speaking competition.

I was an average, awkward student when my teacher picked me to represent my class. Knowing I was a weak contender, I trained like crazy and eventually – and surprisingly – won. That small victory was a humongous tipping point which gave me the confidence to tell myself, “Wow, if I could make a good speech, then I could make a lot of other good stuff too.”

After 3rd grade, I enjoyed making more new stuff – new programs in class as class president, new school activities as student council president, new competitions to try. My grades shot up too.

Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t call myself a “late bloomer”. I learned the value of grit, gained confidence, and never looked back. More importantly, I learned to put myself out on a stage (literally) and tell myself to be okay presenting my ideas. After all, what have I got to lose?

High School: Being Different

I graduated with honors from a well-known science high school that only admitted a few hundred students who topped a national entrance exam. But, in those four years of high school, the most valuable lesson I learned was to be okay being different.

My high school had a rigorous curriculum focused on science, math, and technology, but as I trudged along those four years, I realized that I longed to write more than I longed to solve calculus problems; that I wanted to make art more than I wanted to make compounds; that I wanted to read about politicians and activists more than I wanted to read about scientists.

So I did. And more importantly, I made stuff that drew on those outside interests.

Thanks to the teachers who encouraged said outside interests, I recall organizing a forum on martial law with actual survivors of torture and kidnapping from that era; using my first lessons in HTML for a website for a non-profit organization; and writing a petition – printed on a big poster and displayed in school – to call for more reproductive health rights for women.

Throughout this journey, I not only felt comfortable being different; I also decided I’d continue to make stuff I wanted to make even though the stuff might not be confined in specific classes, silos, or domains.

University: A Synthesis

In university, I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Industrial Engineering from the University of the Philippines. I was recognized by my university as one of four exemplary students in the year I graduated. I was also selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines in 2016.

But my biggest accomplishment is none of these. My biggest accomplishment in university is: co-founding and running KRIS Library, a non-profit organization which built libraries and provided scholarships to young people affected by conflict and poverty.

It was an extremely daunting task, and it utilized everything I’d learned at that point.

The training in science and engineering pushed me to be more efficient, systematic, and design-oriented in running the organization. The skills I learned from public speaking and writing helped me convince donors, gain the support of volunteers, and find an audience for KRIS Library’s story.

The beauty of learning by doing was that: the more I applied my learnings, the more I knew that I knew so little. So I learned more (through books and mentors), applied more, gained more feedback.

Aside from KRIS, I also made (and tried) other new things. I helped to start a fundraising initiative called Good Karma Shirts which is still being run today. I continued to write in publications. I even started investing in the stock market.

All things considered, I learned more outside of the school than inside it. I made more valuable output through things I made and things I tried rather than through my grades. This bode well not only for my formation as a student but also for my overall growth as a person.

What Students Should Do

I’ve grown to believe that the real world rewards creativity more than conformity. I’ve also grown to believe that creativity – mixed with grit and great communication skills – makes a potent formula for success.

And the truth is, it’s difficult to learn these three things through standardized grading measures (e.g. examinations, papers). In my humble experience, the best way to learn these three things is by making and doing, both inside the school and outside.

By making and trying new things – inventions, programs, organizations – inside school, one can learn an unlimited number of skills and values: managing one’s schedule, managing a finite amount of resources, learning to deal with other people, learning to pitch ideas, getting used to making mistakes and then getting better, learning to find a way out of messy situations.

But the very best thing is to also seek other opportunities outside school. Spending too much time in school is a surefire formula for not making the most out of it. Go out there, meet other people of all ages and backgrounds, try things no other students would try, travel with purpose, make things that other people would like, sell something, start a business.

In short, get your hands dirty.

What Schools Should Do

So how can schools actually create an environment that encourages students to make stuff? I have a few broad suggestions:

  • Create an environment that rewards mistakes as much as it rewards successes. Reward students who take big risks in bettering themselves – both inside and outside school.
  • Focus on building “soft skills” and the activities that encourage these. For instance, encourage more out-of-school projects in which students use communication skills to attain certain objectives.
  • Leverage technology and allow students to enjoy making stuff online and with different digital tools.
  • Make learning – more than anything – a fun experience that will encourage students to be perpetual learners. The goal is for them to constantly strive to learn and to improve guided by a growth mindset.

What’s At Stake

If schools remain primarily grades-oriented and testing-oriented, students are robbed off the opportunity to apply the theories and lessons they learn in school in the real world while they’re in school. One of the reasons I was able to risk so much while making new things back then was because I could afford to make more mistakes as a student. I wasn’t supporting myself or my family yet (of course, not everyone has this privilege), and I could start things over again in the next school year if I failed in them this one.

The elements I’ve mentioned – creativity, grit, “soft skills”, non-conformity, confidence, courage, learning from failure, a growth mindset – are the same ingredients I see in the most successful people I admire. If schools are able to prioritize these values, they can potentially churn generations of students who are not only more financially successful but also more creative, more ambitious, more productive, more inspiring, and maybe even happier.

This is a boon for the students – and for the world they’re making new stuff in.

Ultimately, it’s not just about creating new stuff. It’s also about creating – and claiming – one’s true purpose.

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